Survivor : The Politics of Lines in the Sand

Predicting your annoyed frown upon reading the title, I would first begin by arguing that the show Survivor is not simply reality TV, nor a remnant of this once popular, now dying genre. It is much more, although a first glance would reveal only drama stacked on more drama. However, I have taken upon myself a quest to unveil the principles of Political Science residing in unexpected places in our daily lives, stopping in this moment solely on the show Survivor.

The world of Survivor revolves around one word, turned into a deity in itself by Western socio-economic ideology and mentality passed down from the age of railways and abundant oil through rivalry-oriented education and exceptionalist, borderline chauvinistic attitudes, namely competition. Competition is the soul of the show, encompassing the three words on its flag – outwit, outplay and outlast, and is the credo by which the competitors, 16 to 20 of them, live for the duration of the game – 39 days in total.


Before we go on, it is also worth stopping to address the claim of the total falsity of the game. In my own interpretation the honesty of the producers is of little importance, making whether or not X or Y end up winning an obscure detail. What is important is the induced partisan mentality, the “us versus them” thinking that turns strangers with whom you might share more than expected into fierce and hated enemies. Switch-ups, through which people are reshuffled into new tribes, hardly change anything, the old rivals keeping their senseless and artificial conflict to a fault. This mentality cannot be orchestrated or followed daily, 24/7, for more than a month by the most talented actors. It can only be instilled and nurtured, and part of it will always be true.

Conflicts between castaways spark from anything, as weakened, hungry bodies and exhausted minds induce themselves into a permanent state of paranoia, essential to survival in such a game. Everyone becomes the enemy and the little trust one gains can be easily lost. Thus early in the game the first alliances take shape within tribes, a common one being the “muscle alliance”, made up of physically strong players, as opposed to the “girl alliance” ,composed of physically weaker women that systematically vote out the men, that is to be expected in the individual part of the game.

In the end only three castaways survive the Tribal Councils and get the chance to plead their case to the Jury. The Jury is made up of competitors that were voted out. Thus the backstabbing masterminds and two-faced devious “allies” are forced to convince the people they betrayed to vote for them in a display of poetic justice that political figures in history never had.

Beyond the actual competition, Survivor is a social experiment, people who have never met before having to build their own society with its own social layers, labor and resource distribution systems. Petty differences are easily sought out to justify conflicts and lines drawn in the sand become iron curtains. Beyond all else, it is a numbers game, a miniature republic, with all defining features. The all-American competitors quickly resort to democratic voting in order to decide on matters but as time passes and hardships, along with the duels with the other tribe, wear them down and republicanism gives way to the authoritarianism of a single person or the oligarchy of the majoritarian group.

"Actions vs. Accusations" - The Coyopa Tribe at Tribal Council during the third episode of Survivor 29, Wednesday, Oct. 8 (8:00-9:30 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“Actions vs. Accusations” – The Coyopa Tribe at Tribal Council during the third episode of Survivor 29, Wednesday, Oct. 8 (8:00-9:30 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The issue of numbers and majorities is also the center of Political Science hall of fame thinkers, such as J.J. Rousseau, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin. The first believed in the legitimacy and absolute reach of the general will, the volonté générale, not just a majority but an all-encompassing will of the people that would be a great equalizer, leveling the field of freedom after ages of slavery. The other three, with the addition of Alexis de Tocqueville, denounced the principle of general will and positive liberty as dangerous ideas that could be engulfed by despotism. The authority of the majority has been rejected by Tocqueville as a force that constricts the morals of the individual through public opinion and its unopposed institutions, by Constant as a tool of power that can easily be swayed to commit atrocities in the name of democracy if not limited, and by Mill as the barrier that raises the fences of law and majoritarian opinion around the minority, inducing conformity by force.

Majorities, however, are the life blood of Survivor. Why? Because left unattended, individuals will seek out others with whom they are similar, gladly grouping to face a common, stronger enemy in a vaudevillian reenactment of Hobbesian state of nature, all for a chance at “survival”. With a higher authority that supposedly does not interfere in the game (except to rule out physical violence, the motor of political association in real life), contestants are cruel and abuse the minoritarian outcasts, using them only in power struggles. If Marx would watch a season of Survivor, he would give a standing ovation to its political and sociological metaphors, showing the mechanisms that pit man against man out of greed and sheer manipulation, brought out by desperation.

Within the boundaries of the game, muscular athletes can be at the mercy of scrawny, pale teens. Soccer moms can become ruthless ringleaders and shy teenage girls can author painful backstabs as bold moves are made and power shifts constantly. Angry mobs can come to life out of general impressions and skilled manipulation. The color of the buff becomes an inescapable mark of differentiation between castaways and occasional group leaders use preemptive strikes as a justification for starting a conflict. As it seems, in the game of Survivor, and maybe in many aspects of life, one can be voted out as a hero or live long enough to see himself become the villain (or end articles with cliché phrases).

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